April 3, 2002

Mandrake 8.2: great software distributed poorly

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
I have finally upgraded from Mandrake 8.0 to 8.2, and I am pleased to say that once it is installed, Mandrake 8.2 can be the base of a home or office desktop that is so fast, flexible, and easy to use that people ought to be lining up to buy it. And, strangely, Mandrake is giving it away instead of selling it.
The good part: This is great software

I installed Mandrake 8.2 on two laptops. Number one was an HP Pavilion N5340, a proven Linux workhorse I have used so long and hard that its case is now held together with duct tape. Mandrake 8.2 slipped onto this machine so smoothly that I did the installation during TV commercials. My Linksys 802.11b wireless card was detected automatically, and there is a cool little utility in the 8.2 installer that automatically goes online right away and looks for updates. There weren't any I needed, but I'm sure there will be some later for people who wait a while to get their copies of 8.2, and they will be pleasantly surprised to find this little bit of niceness in their new Mandrake installation.

Laptop number two was a brand-new (sub-$1000) Compaq Presario 700 that came with Windows XP pre-installed. I tried over and over to get Mandrake 8.2 and Windows XP to play together nicely, but finally gave up and used Partition Commander to keep them at arm's length during the install. Then I ran into a problem: a "hang" on boot every time it got to "initialize Eth0." Eventually it would time out, but still frustrating. It seemed this laptop, unlike others I have owned, had a built-in NIC that actually worked with Linux, and when I configured my network for (I thought) my wireless card, this one got configured, too. Once I figured out how to turn off "Start at boot" for Eth0 in the network configuration utility, life was good. I had a nice, clean boot, nice-looking default KDE desktop (which my wife immediately started changing; this computer is for her, not me), and everything else anyone could want.

The Presario's one remaining problem is that I have not been able to get an 802.11b card going at all in Windows XP. It looks like it's working, but no data gets passed. The "Repair this network connection" utility in XP is not simple and straightforward like the network setup in Mandrake 8.2. I thought I ought to have XP and MSIE around for Web site design verification, but this wireless problem is frustrating; Windows XP is just too geeky for a simple person like me. I'll probably end up running MSIE in Linux through one of Codeweavers' products for the moment, and will stay away from Windows until they come out with a simplified version that works with the common peripherals Mandrake sets up automatically.

Once I got tired of messing with Windows and turned back to good old Linux, I added OpenOffice and a few other applications to the basic Mandrake 8.2 installations on the two laptops, restored some backed-up data, and that was that: a wireless-networked, two-computer home office ready to take on the world, connected to the Internet through an SMC Barricade combination router and wireless access point, all set up in less than two hours of working time.

I am exceedingly satisfied with Mandrake 8.2. It is clean, smooth, and friendly. All the GUI utilities I have tried so far have done their jobs admirably. I have not had to look at a command line even once, although it's certainly there for me any time I want to go beyond the GUI.

The bad part: None of this does Mandrake any good

The sad thing about all this is that even though I am a satisfied Mandrake "customer" I am not really a Mandrake customer this time around. I would have been happy to buy 8.2 CDs from Mandrake, either directly or through a local retail outlet, but they weren't available when the "download edition" went onto the various Mandrake download mirrors. As I write this, Mandrakesoft is taking "pre-orders" for various version of v8.2 ranging in price from $55 (plus shipping, but without manuals or support) up to a package that includes the 8.2 ProSuite now and the 9.0 and 9.1 ProSuite versions when they eventually ship. And I see no mention of a $30-level "consumer" version, which Mandrake has generally offered in the past.

But why wait? If you (or a friend) don't have a fast connection and CD burner handy, you can order Mandrake 8.2 "download edition" CDs right now from a whole bunch of places. I got mine from Linux Download or CDs, a one-man show in West Virginia. Why in the world does C.W., Linux Download or CD's owner, have Mandrake 8.2 CDs available for sale before MandrakeSoft itself? I mean, C.W. is a great guy, but shouldn't MandrakeSoft have their own CDs available the moment they put a new release out for download, or at least have deals in place with C.W and others like him in various countries to put out "official download edition" CDs on a royalty basis as soon as the download version is on the mirrors? I'll bet C.W. would love to work with MandrakeSoft, and so would many others.

I don't feel guilty about getting "outside" CDs because I paid $60 to become a member of the Mandrake Linux Users Club, a way to support Mandrake that doesn't really offer a lot in return. It says, right in the first paragraph on the MandrakeClub home page, "...your membership in Mandrake Club is, above all, a sign of your appreciation for the various services that are provided by MandrakeSoft free of charge for everyone."

Aren't I nice? If you downloaded Mandrake 8.2 for free and are using it, but you aren't a member of the Mandrake Club, you should thank me for helping support your free software. I will not go into the silliness of a supposedly for profit company begging customers for money; Jack Bryar has already covered that.

There is nothing wrong with charging for GPL software. There is nothing wrong with making it easier for people to pay you to get your Linux distribution than to get it for free. A Mandrake Club that offered something like better/faster download servers or something else useful to dues-paying members would be fine, except please call it "Mandrake Premium," and remove the charity appeal from the signup process.

There's already an excellent software update utility built into the Mandrake Software Manager. Why in the world doesn't it offer to connect me to Mandrake Premium for a nominal fee the first time I start it up? Where is the icon on the desktop offering Mandrake Premium? C'mon, MandrakeSoft, it's okay to do this. It's a perfectly legitimate business tactic. Those who don't want to pay for the service don't have to sign up for it. They can continue to hunt for Mandrake software on random mirrors, looking for one that's not overloaded. Those of us who have a few bucks in our pockets -- and work too many hours per day to have time to play server roulette -- will happily pay. Five bucks per month is not a lot as long as we get something solid in return. Heck, give us $10 per month subscriptions that give us serious value and most of us will probably still bite, especially if you allow us to sign up for a minimum of three months ($30) instead of the current Mandrake Club requirement of an entire year ($60) all at once, which is a little steep for college students and others on tight budgets.

As a long-time Mandrake Linux user I would like to see MandrakeSoft start making smart business moves that would ensure the company's survival. But if not, so it goes. ELX, Lycoris, Xandros, and others are all advancing rapidly. One day, probably within the next few months, at least one of them is going to have a distribution that is as polished, all-encompassing, and user-friendly as Mandrake, but backed by a saner business plan. When that day comes, I will seriously consider moving away from Mandrake. I'm sure many other loyal Mandrake users will, too.


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